Staying Tuned

Confession: I follow several soap operas. One is EastEnders, a British import on our local PBS station. The others are on the Yahoo! Finance message boards.

The message boards are ostensibly a means for investors and other followers of publicly traded companies to discuss corporate news and investment strategies. But employees and former employees often sign on as well, usually to gripe about management. The boards have become global water coolers, accessible to all.

As you might expect, whenever a public company reports significant losses, suffers boardroom turmoil, or lays off staff, its board is aboil with messages. And while reading the posts on the companies in which I’ve invested doesn’t mitigate the huge hits my portfolio has taken this year, it does make me feel a bit less worse about them. During the Depression, movie attendance soared as people sought to forget their troubles. Today, some of us read message boards as another form of escapism.

But because the Internet makes all manner of company information available to anyone with a modem, you need to be extra sensitive when laying off staff. Even if you present the facts, detail the figures, and offer as generous a severance package as you can afford, there will still be anger, apprehension, fear, and mistrust among both those let go and those who remain. Skip the facts/figures/generous severance approach, and be prepared to have your corporate soap opera broadcast on the Web. Disgruntled employees and former employees talk — a lot. How else would I have heard these layoff horror stories? (None of which, by the way, occurred at catalog companies.)

  • A manager was commanded to report to his boss, whose office was across town from his own. The manager trekked uptown via two subways — only to be told he was being let go. Couldn’t the boss have at least made the effort to come to the employee?

  • A worker was called into his supervisor’s office. The supervisor was on the phone…with, as it turned out, human resources. Instead of telling the worker that he was being let go, the supervisor handed the phone to the worker, and the HR person on the other end of the line delivered the news.

  • An editor — okay, it was me, nine years ago — was laid off and told to clear out of the office that afternoon. The next morning, my former boss phoned me at home — demanding that I turn in an article that hadn’t even been due yet…and no, she wasn’t planning to pay me extra for it.

I’ll give these employers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they weren’t malevolent, but simply weren’t thinking. They should have been thinking, though. For not only do people talk, but they also have long memories. With the current economic malaise, employees may be staying put out of fear or lack of opportunity. But once business picks up and more jobs are available, workers are going to remember how they and their colleagues were treated when times were tough, and they’re going to treat the company in the same fashion.

That’s what makes it a soap opera, after all. One denouement simply leads to another.

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